The New Aaron Swartz Documentary At Sundance

Tim Wu | The New Yorker | January 21, 2014

“The Internet’s Own Boy,” a documentary about the life and death of Aaron Swartz, premièred on Monday at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation. The life of Swartz as a coder and an Internet thinker is well known. A believer in free access to knowledge, in 2010 Swartz installed a computer in an M.I.T. supply closet and downloaded a large number of old academic articles. He was detected, caught, and charged by a federal prosecutor with thirteen felonies; in January of 2013, before his trial, Swartz killed himself. The documentary, shot in the course of that year, gives us relatively little new information about the legal controversy, but it is deeply revealing about who Swartz was.

The film confirms what everyone has said about Swartz—that he was difficult, foolish, and self-important in a way that is particular to smart young men, and that he was smart, idealistic, and vulnerable. He was one of those people who, beginning early in life, question everything, and notice how many of the answers are absurd. That instinct took him to the edge of society, like so many brilliant misfits, a disproportionate number of whom have created the American tech industry.

Swartz’s inability to adhere to social norms is well represented onscreen. For most of us, small talk and repetitious homework are mere annoyances, but for Aaron Swartz they were torture. As a freshman at Stanford, he preferred reading books to sitting with people in the dining hall, and, when asked if he was abnormal, told people that he found them abnormal for not preferring books. He left college after a year and helped to develop Reddit, but, after Wired’s acquisition of the site, he found that he couldn’t stand the absurdities of a work environment any more easily than those of college.